Undercover sting exposes Malaysia land-grab

Allegations of corruption get louder following secret tapes showing plunder of resource-rich Sarawak province.

Long Napir, Malaysia – Plantations and logging are ravaging Malaysia’s majestic Borneo region and indigenous people who have lived for centuries here say they are increasingly being uprooted from their once-pristine lands.

But as the timber and palm oil companies swarm over the rugged landscape of resplendent rivers and ancient rainforests, villagers in Long Napir in the country’s biggest state Sarawak have vowed to thwart any further land-grabs.

The village is a settlement of longhouses, the traditional communal housing favoured by indigenous people in eastern Malaysia’s Borneo island.

Under the Sarawak Land Law, indigenous people have rights over areas as long as they can prove they have lived in or used the lands prior to January 1, 1958.

“We have no land to farm, our rivers have become muddy, there’s hardly any fish left anymore.

– Tamin Sepuluh Ribu, villager

But the surrounding ancient rainforests that are so essential to their traditional way of life is under threat because of logging and plantation companies. Over the past 30 years, Sarawak – one of the richest Malaysian states – has become one of the largest exporters of tropical timber.

Despite its wealth, profits have failed to trickle down, and the people here are some of the poorest in the country.

Long Napir villagers lay the blame for their plight squarely on one man: the state’s powerful chief minister, Abdul Mahmud Taib, who is in charge of all land classification and the allocation of lucrative forestry and plantation licenses.

“He lives, the rest of us suffer,” Tamin Sepuluh Ribu, a former village headman, told Al Jazeera. “We have no land to farm, our rivers have become muddy, there’s hardly any fish left anymore.”

‘Coterie of cronies’

Global Witness, a non-governmental organisation working against environmental exploitation, has investigated and exposed the situation in remote eastern Malaysia.  

An undercover Global Witness investigator posing as an investor was offered several opportunities to purchase land in Sarawak by company officials linked to Chief Minister Taib. In each instance, the land in question was occupied by indigenous communities, who have valid claims to ownership rights under Malaysian law.

Global Witness said the indigenous areas were being sold by companies with close personal or political ties to the chief minister.

Taib has held the post since 1981, and has been repeatedly accused of corruption during his nearly 32-year rule.

The US Embassy in Kuala Lumpur noted in one cable released by WikiLeaks: “Chief Minister Taib Mahmud … doles out timber-cutting permits while patrolling the underdeveloped state using 14 helicopters, and his family’s companies control much of the economy.”

The American cable added that, “All major contracts and a significant portion of land to be converted to palm oil plantations [including on indigenous ‘customary land rights’ that the state government has refused to recognize] are given to these three companies.”

People in Sarawak are “fed up” with Taib’s administration, “seen as only enriching his family and a small coterie of cronies”, it said.

A Penan girl deep in the Borneo rainforests [EPA]

Under investigation

Global Witness released a November 2012 report titled, “In the future, there will be no forests.” 

“Taib’s powerful executive position and personal responsibility for the issuance of lucrative logging and plantation licences has enabled him to systematically extract ‘unofficial payments’ from the state’s timber tycoons for the enrichment of himself and his family,” the report said.

Taib, meanwhile, denied the corruption allegations as “wholly untrue and malicious”, said the report.

In 2011, the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission launched an official investigation into Taib, which continues at present.

In secretly taped negotiations provided to Al Jazeera, the Global Witness investigator discussed buying land with company shareholders Fatimah Abdul Rahman and Norlia Abdul Rahman – Taib’s first cousins. Fatimah admitted the parcel of land under discussion had been transferred to them by Chief Minister Taib.

“Yeah, he’s the one who gave us the land. He’s my cousin,” Fatimah said, laughing.

In 2011, Taib gave his cousins 5,000 hectares of land for about $300,000 dollars, according to leaked land registry documents. Having secured agriculture and timber licences, they were trying to sell it a year later for more than $16mn.

Later, discussing the ease of receiving a forestry license, Fatimah told the Global Witness investigator: “The Land and Survey Department, they are the ones that issue this licence. Of course, this is from the CM’s [Chief Minister’s] directive, but I can speak to the CM very easily.”

Fatimah and Norlia did not respond to Al Jazeera’s requests for comment.

‘Naughty people’

Chief Minister Abdul Taib Mahmud is accused of graft [Reuters]

Over the years, Taib’s government has sought to limit the exercise of indigenous land rights. More than 200 land dispute cases are now before Sarawak courts, brought on behalf of claimants from indigenous communities.

Jannie Lasimbang, Malaysia’s National Human Rights Commissioner, told Al Jazeera that numerous amendments have eroded indigenous land rights over the years.

“The commission is concerned about the high degree of frustration, anger and desperation among indigenous peoples,” Lasimbang said. 

In 1994, the Sarawak government gave the minister in charge of land the power to extinguish Native Customary Rights to land. Two years later, it was legislated that land dispute cases were automatically to presume the land belongs to the state, and the burden of proof was shifted to the claimant.

In 2011, the definition of “native” was amended to include “any party entering into a joint-venture plantation deal with the Land Custody and Development Authority”.

In the secretly recorded conversations with Global Witness, Taib’s cousins Fatimah and Norlia showed disdain and contempt for indigenous rights, describing local villagers as “naughty people”.

“So the minute they hear this land has been given, has been titled to this company to do oil palm and what-not, they’ll plonk themselves there,” said Fatimah.

Her sister Norlia added, “They may harass you, that’s all. They are actually squatters on the land, because the land doesn’t belong to them. It’s government land. So they’re squatting.”

Scratching the surface

The secret dealings caught on tape only scratch the surface of the Taib family’s business interests.

“I know people are talking about him [Taib] being corrupted and all, but I think who isn’t in this world when they’re leaders?

– Fatimah Abdul Rahman, Taib’s cousin

Leaked land registry documents analysed by Swiss non-governmental organisation Bruno Manser Fonds suggest that companies linked to Taib’s family control about 200,000 hectares of land in Sarawak – an area twice the size of Hong Kong. Global Witness estimates it has a market value of $500mn.

Divorce settlement proceedings in Malaysia between one of Taib’s son, Mahmud Abu Bakir Abdul Taib and his first wife Shahnaz Abdul Majid, also highlight the vast wealth of the family. The ex-wife testified that Mahmud had an estimated $233 million deposited in more than 100 bank accounts around the world. 

In June 2011, the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission said it had launched an investigation into Chief Minister Taib, but gave no further details.  When Al Jazeera inquired about the progress of the case last month, the commission said it had “no comment on the matter”.

Taib’s office did not respond to Al Jazeera’s request for an interview, but he has consistently denied allegations of corruption.

The family appears not view the accusations with much seriousness. As Taib’s cousin Fatimah declared on tape: “I know people are talking about him [Taib] being corrupted and all, but I think who isn’t in this world when they’re leaders?”

One villager in Sarawak promised not to allow the status quo to continue. 

“We will fight on at all costs,” farmer Vincent Balingau told Al Jazeera. “We let them take timber in the past, but we had no idea they were planning to take our land.”

Source: Al Jazeera